Only 85 of These Rare Dolphins Exist—So Why Is Laos Doing Something That Could Kill Them All?

A proposed hydropower dam in the Mekong Delta would spell doom for critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins.

(Photo: Gerard Soury/Getty Images)

Mar 5, 2014· 1 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Only around 85 Irrawaddy dolphins, an unusual-looking cetacean with a blunt-shaped head, remain in the Mekong Delta, despite international efforts to save the critically endangered species. Now a plan by government officials in Laos to construct a dam on the river threatens to wipe out these dolphins altogether, conservationists say.

Time reported Monday that the small nation wants to construct a 260-megawatt dam across one of the main channels of the river delta in southern Laos, near the 115-mile stretch of habitat in which Irrawaddy dolphins are now protected.

Irrawaddy dolphins, one of the few species that can live in fresh or salt water, are found in coastal areas stretching from India to Indonesia, mostly in river pools, estuaries, and lagoons. They rarely venture more than a few miles offshore and have been spotted more than 760 miles upstream.

Considered sacred by the Khmer and the Lao, the dolphins were listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2008. Five freshwater populations, including the Mekong dolphins, were classified as Critically Endangered.

Human activity has contributed greatly to the species’ decline: The dolphins are often killed in fishing gill nets, and they suffer from habitat destruction due to construction projects like the dam. The Mekong, home to more than 1,200 species of fish, teems with life; 80 to 90 percent of the fish pass through the same channel that Laos wants to dam up, which could devastate prey stocks for the dolphins.

“Plans to construct the Don Sahong Dam in a channel immediately upstream from these dolphins will likely hasten their disappearance from the Mekong,” World Wildlife Federation–Cambodia Country Director Chhith Sam Ath told reporters late last month.

Dam opponents say it will not only block fish migration and increase boat traffic. A WWF paper concludes that engineers will use explosives to clear millions of tons of rock, resulting in devastating shockwaves that can short-circuit the dolphins’ echolocation and even kill them.

News of the hydro-electric power project comes at a time when international efforts to save the dolphins are just beginning to show results. In 2009, the Cambodian government issued a ban on gill nets along a 115-mile stretch of the river, creating protected areas for Mekong dolphins in Cambodia.

Last year, WWF-Cambodia, the IUCN, and Cambodian government officials held a workshop that culminated in the “Kratie Declaration on the Conservation of the Mekong River Irrawaddy Dolphins,” billed as a “joint strategy for dolphin conservation in the Mekong.”

The document provides recommendations for research on mortality, disease and animal management, behavior, and ecology. Central to the work are “remote biopsies” that allow researchers to gather tissue samples from live animals, yielding critical data on “hormone levels, nutrition, genetics, and contaminants,” according to the IUCN website.

But maybe the animals don’t need to be saved by science—maybe they command enough respect to save themselves. Many of the people that hold Irrawaddy dolphins in sacred regard are now learning that ecotourism and dolphin-watching businesses can offset losses caused by the gill net ban.

Then again, even hallowed dolphins probably won’t be able to stop a dam. Opponents are urging Laos to find an alternative site, one that won’t further threaten the Irrawaddy dolphins which are just beginning to receive the help they desperately need.